Canada likely to see ‘resurgence’ of common viruses among children after COVID-19: experts

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Concerns have been building over how prolonged public health measures, such as social distancing, could impact the developing immune systems of youths and kids.

Several experts have told Global News however that it’s very unlikely that a lack of exposure could weaken children’s immune systems. Parents and public health professionals should instead be bracing for an impending wave of common viruses and colds that have not been seen since before the pandemic, they say.

According to Dr. Fatima Kakkar, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at CHU Sainte-Justine in Montreal, common illnesses like pneumonia and ear infections were almost non-existent during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There was really no other viruses circulating because everybody’s social distancing measures were so excellent,” Kakkar told Global News in an interview Saturday.

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“But now it’s come back, so the regular viruses, the cough, the cold, the flu — it’s all come back because people are out there and they’re being exposed more.”

Her comments come as provinces begin to ramp up reopening plans across the country, with several outlining potential changes to masking and social distancing guidelines as vaccinations continue to rise.

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Kakkar told Global News that the lack of exposure for young children during the pandemic doesn’t actually “change” their immune system, and that kids were either born with functioning immune systems or not.

Dr. Gerald Evans, chair of infectious diseases at Queen’s University, also expressed some skepticism about how immune systems could be “trained” and developed by repeated exposure to pathogens.

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“I would just suggest to you that that’s a weird personification of the immune system — your immune is working all the time,” Evans said.

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“I mean, humans are full of bacteria from their mouth to their rear end on their skin and in many other locales, so it’s not like you’re completely living in a sterile environment like a bubble or something like that.”

While Kakkar and Evans agreed that immune systems were not likely to weaken due social distancing and a lack of contact with others, they both pointed to several other respiratory viruses and recurrent infections that Canadian health systems were likely to see a resurgence of.

One such infection was that of Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) — a common and usually mild virus that causes bronchiolitis and pneumonia.

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It’s a virus that could potentially cause severe infection in babies a year old and younger, as well as fully grown adults that have compromised immune systems or existing health or respiratory complications.

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The U.S. is already beginning to see a resurgence of RSV across Southern U.S. states, which has prompted the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention to issue a warning on Thursday.

While public health officials and experts have said that outbreaks of RSV are for the most part manageable, what is uncommon about the impending spread of the disease is its timing.

According to the Canadian Pediatric Society, the usual RSV season begins from between November and January and persists between four to five months.

Kakkar said that her hospital is now preparing for a peak of what she calls “summer respiratory illnesses.”

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“What we would normally see around September, October — the increasing viral infections and the peaks that we usually see in January — we’re expecting it to be delayed, so the hospital looks like it would right now in September and October, which is unusual.”

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She said that usually in January and February, CHU Sainte-Justine would be full of infants with bronchiolitis, which is caused by RSV, who need oxygen and support.

Kakkar said that they’re now beginning to see their wards fill up with infants and kids who are now undergoing a plethora of these respiratory issues.

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“So we haven’t seen that until now, and we’re planning for a summer potential wave of these illnesses,” she said.

Evans on the other hand said that the real challenge now going into this year and the next is having to balance between seeing a resurgence of all these other respiratory viruses, which were supressed heavily during the pandemic, and COVID-19.

“It’s going to be really, really difficult and confusing for us, because at the same time, I’m going to be worried about influenza rates peaking and causing lots of hospitalizations and stuff, I’m going to have worry about how much COVID is going to still be circulating, because we know that it can cause hospitalizations and death as well,” he said.

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“We’ve got to put it into perspective with how much of it is COVID-19 and how much of it is non-COVID-19.”

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